If nothing else, the coronavirus should have made all of us realize how much we really do like going to class. A video chat with your class can be awkward, confusing and frustrating, but it’s doable. In college, learning online isn’t so hard. Universities offer online classes anyway. It’s a matter of transitioning from the in-person class to the online format that is the true challenge for college students and professors.
Even for high school students, learning online isn’t the end of the world. Certain topics are most certainly taught better in person, but many students at this age are tech-savvy enough to figure out most of the curriculum on their own or with the help of the internet.
Conversely, the coronavirus is ravaging early education and elementary education. Think about the things you experienced in elementary school. You learned to add and subtract with those little cubes that snapped together. You attended art class, music class and physical education class. You did artwork based on the letters of the alphabet, and you felt pride when it was hung on the walls of your classroom.
To reenact the beauty of elementary school is a tall order for the average working parent. While many teachers are going above and beyond to design ways to make virtual learning fun, at the end of the day, childhood is the most crucial phase of development and being in school, live and in-person, is key to success.
A study conducted between 2008 and 2012 published by Brookings Institution found that students in grades two through nine lost between 25% and 30% of their school year learning over the summer. This amount is bound to be accentuated by the additional loss of essential learning time in March through June.
As much as we can pretend that a combination of parents and teachers virtually will supplement this learning, this just isn’t the reality for every family.
Not all parents have the time or ability to be pseudo-teachers. Some have multiple kids, a remote job and household responsibilities. Others are nurses and doctors and still have to report to work. And some parents are devoting themselves completely to educating their kids. Maybe they have backgrounds in education. Great for them, but these kids will return to school (hopefully) in September eons ahead of their peers who, by no fault of their own, are now very behind.
This problem is even more severe when we consider the special education population. These students rely on services that can only be performed in-person. Physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists cannot operate remotely. They create hands-on activities, work with the students in classrooms and have specialized rooms in schools fitted with bikes, mats and swings for kids to build motor skills and de-stress.
In the public schools, kids who qualify for special education services are given a plan to ensure their educational success based on their individual special needs. These plans, known as individualized education plans (IEPs) are state-mandated. Providing virtual therapy and special education services might check off a box for these requirements, but students with special needs are falling behind in practical ways because work cannot be modified remotely in the same way. An occupational therapist (OT) can send a student’s parent an email with tips to work on fine motor skills, but this OT has no way to ensure that the student is actually doing the activities. It is impossible for a parent to step in for a highly trained professional.
Students are going to fall behind because of this virus, and it is time to stop pretending that everything can be done virtually. College students can read textbooks and take notes and then take tests on this material. But we need to remember that for younger students, this isn’t education. Education is learning to write with a pencil, sharing with a peer and playing the recorder in music class. Parents are superheroes sometimes, but they can’t do it all. This virus will have a lasting effect on the educational trajectory of elementary students for years to come, and parents who can’t fill in as adequate teachers and therapists are not to blame. Picking back up in September like no time was lost is going to prove difficult. For students with special needs, it will be close to impossible.
Leaders in education in Connecticut and in America need to rethink how they will progress when this virus eventually ends. Will they have to create supplemental learning over the summer? Will they have to reduce the requirements to be considered “grade-level”?
I don’t have the answers but I do want to thank the teachers and therapists valiantly trying to explain how to work wonders via the internet, and I applaud the parents who have found a way to make it work.